I am who I am, and I know what I know about God and faith and church because of faithful youth pastors. I started middle school in the early 1990s at a large evangelical Methodist church. Youth group was my life. I can’t overstate the influence youth ministry has had in my life. In addition to this, I spent seven years on staff as a college minister at a church where my closest colleagues were a team of youth ministers. I’ve had a front row seat to the challenges youth ministers face and the way spiritual direction speaks directly to those challenges.
Youth ministry is people, which means it’s messy and difficult and wonderful all at the same time. So much of what I know about Jesus and Jesus’ church I know because of the youth pastors and volunteer youth workers who paid attention to me, took me and my faith seriously, and shared their own life with God with me.
Over the years I’ve been able to either stay in touch with or reconnect with a number of these people. Some have continued in new ministry roles. For others, the church no longer has a place in their life. And this saddens me. I live in a city where you can’t sit in a coffee shop without encountering an ex-youth pastor, more often than not, no longer connected to church. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve written before about how spiritual direction benefits pastors. All that applies to youth pastors. Here are some ways that spiritual direction directly benefits the vocation of youth ministry.
1. Having a healthy relationship with your lead pastor
It’s a weird thing when your pastor becomes our boss. You may accept a paying position at your own church where you’ve previously been a member where that relationship suddenly changes. You may walk into a community where every body sees this person as pastor, but to you, they’re the person evaluating your performance.
A spiritual director provides you a place where you can receive pastoral care from someone not with power over your paycheck. Some lead pastors have great boundaries. Some don’t. You have control over your boundaries, and with a director, you can allow your pastor to be themselves and nothing more.
2. Discerning your vocation
Chances are you didn’t train for this. Nor do you plan to retire from youth ministry. There are exceptions. Most of the youth pastors I interact with are in their mid-20s and still discovering themselves. They may envision themselves on track to a different ministry role in the future. They may be exploring other career opportunities.
A spiritual director can be a person who see us as we are and not the persona we where as youth pastor. Where do you see God at work? How is God inviting you to respond? How is this setting of youth ministry the most faithful way for you to respond? Youth ministry is oftentimes a season calling and we can need a pair of eyes on us helping us discern the next season.
3. De-cluttering from distractions
When your to-do list involves visiting students on campus for lunch, emailing volunteers about the upcoming mission trip, returning a parent’s phone call, going to the church staff meeting, taking an online seminary class, while making time for your family, how do you know what’s most important? How do you not give in to being overwhelmed?
Meeting with a spiritual director carves out necessary space to sit in quiet to listen before God. A director sits with you for that “mental triage” to discern what’s truly God’s invitation versus all the things we feel obliged to say “yes” to.
4. A guide in spiritual formation
Your work is first and foremost about leading young people deeper into the ways of God. You also have the opportunity to lead adult volunteers and parents in discipleship, as well. Who leads you? You’re only capable of leading as far as you yourself have been led.
A director helps you recognize yourself in the movements of God’s story. They can teach you to new and different spiritual disciplines. They can introduce you to books and writers have have stood the test of time and proven beneficial to growing in faith.
5. Staying anchored amidst conflicting expectations
Being a youth pastor can sometimes feel like being drawn and quartered. On the bad days, the students want one thing, the volunteer team something else, the parents go in another direction all together, and the lead pastor has still a different vision.
To be a pastor of any kind is to be accountable to God. When the expectations you feel from God and the expectations you feel from the church aren’t on the same page, a director can help you discern the way forward. When you feel the symptoms of burnout, a director is a safe place of expressing those feelings so you don’t explode.
6. Learning your gifts and bringing them forward
We are all made in the image of God. We are each uniquely gifted to minister in a wide variety of ways. We may find ourselves in youth ministry because we’re drawn to young people. Our students themselves are growing and stumbling through their own journeys of self-awareness. What does it mean to walk in hospitality, to be a nurturer, or a creative?
A spiritual director can help us name our gifts so we can bring them to our community. And as we learn to recognize our own gifts, we learn to recognize our gifts, we learn to see others’ with sharper eyes. A director can also help us name our limitations and realize we can’t do it all.
7. Having a safe outlet for frustrations
Making the transition from a teenager in youth group to a paid staff person can take you behind the curtain. In some sense, you begin to see how the sausage gets made. And for many, that can be a disillusioning experience that starts to feed your cynicism.
It can lead to questions and doubts. We need to verbally process these feelings, and doing that in the company of parents or students isn’t appropriate or healthy. A spiritual director provides an appropriate and healthy space to vent those out loud.
8. Fighting back against busyness
A youth pastor once told me, “I work 80 hours a week. And I love it. I don’t know how to turn it off. But I think I probably need to figure out how to slow it down.” Whether you’re responsible for a large group of kids or a small group, whether you’re paid or volunteer, whether you’re part-time or full-time, there’s always something more to get done. Sunday and Wednesday come every week.
If we’re not careful, we normalize this pace of life all the way until we burnout. A spiritual director reminds us that we’re not designed by God to be busy. Busyness is a sickness to our soul. A director can ask tough questions about why we let ourselves by led around by so many urgencies and teach us healthy boundaries.
9. Seeing the big picture
Youth ministry is one piece in a grand collage of what God is doing in your church and in your community. It can be easy to get lost in what you do, especially if it’s a specific niche, whether that’s junior highers or the 10th grade Sunday school class. It’s one piece of a larger tapestry. Your work as a youth pastor fits in a larger context of the church and the community.
A director helps us see the big picture and how all the threads come together. We’re connected in a larger body, and our kids are connected to a larger story. They come from particular families and will grow up and form families of their own. A director reminds us there’s more to life than youth group, both for us and our students.
Youth ministry matters because you lead the church in encountering the presence of Christ among us in kids and teenagers. You remind us continually that at the banquet in the kingdom of God there is only the kids’ table. A spiritual director is an indispensable ally in your being a healthy youth pastor.
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